Seamus Heaney: ‘Noli Timere’ – Don’t Be Afraid

Picture of By Aidan O’Reilly

By Aidan O’Reilly

There are a great deal of things many of us are rightfully afraid of. Be it death, disease, loneliness, or, worst of all, public speaking, it is the things outside of our control that we will inevitably be brought face-to-face with that can result in indescribable terror. Though it is not wrong to fear such things, that fear will inevitably control us if we let it go unchecked, leading to a ‘life’ where we simply let events happen to us and reminisce on the past, rather than moving forward and experiencing what life has to offer. In essence, we allow entropy to win. That concept of life and moving forward are what make the work of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney so powerful. Despite the poems reflecting on Heaney’s past and feelings from that time, they do not dwell on the past as something to be absorbed in, but rather as something to learn from through which we can appreciate the present and future.

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Who Was Seamus Heaney?

Before discussing the poetry of Seamus Heaney, I feel it is important to first discuss who Heaney was. While most poets find acclaim through critics of literature and academics, Heaney’s poetry is the kind that anybody can appreciate and enjoy. Much of this can be traced back to his upbringing in Mossbawn in Northern Ireland and his parentage, which Heaney claims resulted in a significant tension within his background due to the Gaelic cattle-herding past of his father and the Ulster industrial revolution background  of his mother. 

This background can be traced through his poetry, as  Seamus Heaney reflects on moments and events from his past to inspire his art and his craft. He reflects on moments of innocence  in Blackberry Picking, change in Follower, longing in Skunk, and sorrow in Mid-Term Break. What makes these poems so powerful is that many of them recount small or otherwise mundane moments from the poet’s life. The times and events so many of us  take for granted and overlook are held onto and cherished by Heaney, not so that he can glorify and venerate these moments, twisting them into something they were not, but instead to reflect upon them and use them to remember what it means to be alive. That is the type of person Seamus Heaney was. Someone who cared about preserving the transitory nature of being human.

Why Does Seamus Heaney’s Poetry Matter?

Beyond Heaney’s values in his approach to writing poems and telling stories, there is something deeply personal and vulnerable in the way he recounts his lived experiences. This is a trait many poets share, yet I had never really been able to make the connection before reading Seamus Heaney. Personally, it all comes down to Heaney’s personal style in using  language and imagery to create a sense of place within each poem, making it easier for us to enter Heaney’s universe. Each sound, name and word used feels like it belongs in that place and in that time as if Heaney is reaching into the past to show us this moment in the present.

Heaney, in many ways, is a traditionalist, not in the sense of upholding and living strictly by those traditions simply for being traditions, especially given the conflicting background of his parentage. Rather, he respected and appreciated the traditions of the people and the land for what they were and sought to preserve the customs of the time through his poetry. More than something to be glorified, the past and traditions of the community are something that should be appreciated and reflected upon. As doing so allows us to better understand the transitory effects of time and the elements of the human spirit as it crosses from one generation to the next.

People mattered to Seamus Heaney, and, while he certainly did not shy away from topics of religion and politics within his poems, he was never one to take sides. Instead, he cared more about the human element of the story and the effects of such topics on people and how they reflect an intrinsic element of humanity, in all the kindness and compassion as well as all the cruelty and malice that come with it. Being human is a complicated affair, but Heaney’s poetry expresses the innate value and importance of being human. For everything  that scares us and prevents us from living, there is something to be found in the everyday that makes living special if we only look for it.

Don’t Be Afraid

This phrase ‘Noli timere’ – ‘don’t be afraid’ were the last words said by Seamus Heaney in a text message to his wife shortly before he passed away. There is something to this message that I do not feel I will ever be able to fully understand, but I will try to anyway. If the last two years have shown us anything, it is that there is a lot to be afraid of in both the present and the uncertain future. There is no shame in that. However, I would consider what we are willing to justify in response to these fears shameful indeed.

By letting our fears conquer us, instead of us conquering them, we allow terrible things to continue happening and repeat the cycle anew. This is why people like Seamus Heaney and what they create are important reminders of what it is to be human. Through poetry, and the arts in general, we find a richness and bounty, which few other things can provide, that fortify and replenish the self. These poems and creations allow us to see through the eyes of another (a skill I consider Seamus Heaney second to none in) and find vitality and energy in the places and people that have achieved an immortal status by reminding us that nothing stays the same forever. By going forward and embracing life we can conquer the future and our fears.

Cover Image: Encyclopædia Britannica

Editor: Hana Maurer

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